How To Design Adventure Game Puzzles

I’ve always found it weird that, in a genre whose primary game mechanic is puzzle-solving, so many adventure games demonstrate so little ability to get puzzles right. Aware that this could have been setting us up for a fall, I decided to put some time into really analysing adventure game puzzle design, buying a bunch of stuff from GoG.com and searching through all my old review code (one of the great things about your early years as a games journalist is that you get the crap adventure games to review, so you get a good grounding in how not to design puzzles) and working out what entertained me, and what very much didn’t.

It quickly became apparent that the crux of the matter was story. And the really crucial thing that I learned was: adventure games are not puzzle games.

When you’re self-containing a puzzle, you give yourself license to make it really hard – perhaps even obtusely so. You can imbue it with its own internal logic, which eschews the logic you might use on the outside world, and you can have a bulk of the puzzle-solving be about figuring out how this logic works, and how you might apply your increasing knowledge to an eventual solution.

When you buy – say – a puzzle box, your sole purpose of owning that puzzle box is to solve the puzzle. You can take it round with you. You can leave it at home but think about it while you do your shopping. You can take your time, learning the ropes, piecing together little bits of information that will, eventually, grant you access to the solution.

Adventure games aren’t like that. In an adventure game, you’re telling a story: that’s kind of the defining characteristic, I’d say. And while puzzles are important to the traditional genre, they’re there to provide pacing to the story that’s being told, and to add challenge to proceedings. When you play an adventure game, you’re partially solving the puzzles for their own intrinsic reward, but really you’re solving the puzzles because that’s how you get to the next cutscene.

In Richard & Alice, therefore, we’ve tried to keep this at the forefront of our minds. I’ve mentioned our design mantra before: puzzles should exist to provide pacing to the narrative, not to distract you from it. We wanted to have puzzles grounded in real-world logic. We wanted to have puzzles that make you stop and think, sure, but only as far as you’d stop and think in the real world. We wanted to capture that moment in life where you’re faced with a big problem, and you know there’s a solution, you just have to scrunch your forehead up and tap yourself on the head and then, in a few minutes, you’ll arrive at the answer.

We hope the story we’re telling is compelling enough that people will want to see what happens next, and the absolute worst thing we could do in that situation is force players to take breaks from that story against their will. We want you to play the game, we want you to complete the game, we want you to see what happens. This might mean you get to the end in just two or three hours. Maybe it won’t. But either way, we hope that you feel the game was always in motion, always heading on towards its conclusion, always effectively paced. If we can manage this through successful puzzle design, I think we’ve achieved our primary goal.

Lewis

PS. We just got a lovely preview from Rock, Paper, Shotgun. If anyone knows about adventure games, it’s John Walker. So this has left us feeling hugely excited. Might we be onto something?

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